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A Suitable Mom : A Princess Costume, a Clean Closet and a Month of Epiphanies Later, a Working Mother Reflects on the Mixed Joys of Staying Home Full Time

March 06, 1994|Karen Stabiner | Contributing editor Karen Stabiner's last piece for this magazine was on advertising aimed at children.

I didn't work today.

This might be no big deal for the 33% of American moms who stay home full time, but I went to work at 16, filing repair invoices at a Chevy dealership, and I haven't stopped since. I am confirmed workaholic--by temperament, surely, but also by economic imperative, since I, like so many women, just didn't think to marry a pre-Clinton private-practice physician.

Besides, I was one of those idealistic young women who, 20 years ago, bought everything the women's movement was selling. A career meant independence and identity. I was not going to be like my stay-at-home mom, who looked at her suddenly empty house one day and wondered what to do with the rest of her life.

All my friends had careers and then kids. We interviewed child-care people (my favorite was the 17-year-old boy who thought that tending babies was a good career move after a summer at McDonald's). We swapped nursing-mother horror stories, most of which centered on being trapped in a meeting at mealtime. We cut our hair short because we didn't have time to blow-dry the longer styles. We discovered that even the most enlightened male shows up at the dinner table at the appointed time assuming that someone will feed him. Our free time evaporated--and we pretended it didn't matter because there was nothing we could do about it.

Everything got done somehow. We were no longer second-class citizens; if anything, given how much we did, we were better than equal. That shoulder pain wasn't from the Snugli straps--it was from reaching up and over to pat ourselves on the back.

Convinced I was a member of an elite, if beleaguered, sect, I confidently signed 18-month-old Sarah up for what the preschool called a Mommy and Me class. It was supposed to be an opportunity for children to get used to school in two-hour sessions with their folks; as it turned out, I was the one who had trouble getting acclimated. Suddenly I was surrounded by women I hadn't known existed: my chronological peers, women in their 30s and 40s, who didn't work and didn't want to.

Excuse me. They didn't work outside the home for compensation. They were full-time mothers. But most of them had child care anyhow. They went to the gym. They seemed to have read recent books from beginning to end, and they cooked meals that took more than 20 minutes. Some of them had manicures, and all of them were less harried than my indentured pals and I.

Worst of all, they seemed happy. They weren't drooling for the chance to have a career. They were as smug as I was. In fact, some of them felt rather sorry for me, trapped as I was by fiscal circumstance. I wanted either to kill them or be adopted by them.

We circled each other warily. Moms with careers need to think that full-time moms are self-absorbed and limited (no, no, they reply, we're focused and devoted). They, in turn, want to find us distracted and uncaring (no, no, we insist, we're swimming in the economic mainstream and/or providing our children with a new, less lopsided gender model). We are too civilized to say so straight out, but everyone's self-esteem rides on being right: Getting up happy in the morning depends on believing you're living a good life.

Each side has its credentialed advocates, but nobody really knows how the other half lives. So I decided to find out, however briefly: I stopped working for a month to see what life was like on the other side (OK, OK, in the interest of full disclosure, I did two book reviews, got paid for this piece and did not hang up when my agent called). I took a dilettante's tour of what I secretly imagined was heaven on Earth--and prayed would turn out to be a dull purgatory, since winning the lottery stands between me and a lifestyle choice.

I explained to Sarah, now 4, exactly what I was doing. I was working on not working; this was not a permanent change.

Going into this, I imagined such bliss. Let's be honest here (and I speak as someone who would just as soon read "Babar" to my daughter as watch a C-SPAN hearing): There's down time built into this child-rearing business. Our daughter's first six months of life revolved around a lot of sleeping, with nursing breaks in between; she didn't know that I raced back home four times a day from my book research to be there when she woke up.

I admit her second year was a bit harder. I have an office at home, and she quickly learned how to pick up the knife and plunge it directly into my heart. A favorite early sentence: "Mommy, you don't have to finish that chapter now. Your job is to play with me." But 3 and 4 filled up faster than I was ready for, with preschool every morning and various superkid activities in the afternoon. If I didn't work while she was otherwise engaged, I could be a regular Renaissance woman--well-read, well-toned, my garden a bevy of organic vegetables rather than the site of an ongoing turf war between wimpy lettuce and bruiser weeds. And I wouldn't be distracted when she was around. I'd be serene.

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